Patty Hearst in the Attic

Do you remember Patty Hearst? This would be in 1974 or 75. She was the newspaper heiress who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. I know, it really sounds like fiction but honest, this happened. The Symbionese Liberation Army—the SLA—was a group of persons dedicated to committing very public acts of violence, with the idea that this would somehow lead to the fall of capitalism. It was never clear to me exactly why they kidnapped Patty; they had somewhat confusing demands that must be met for her release.

The SLA kept Patty hidden for a couple of months, and then she came out in public as an enthusiastic member of the group. I think this was one of the earliest cases of Stockholm syndrome to be identified in the public imagination. The SLA released a photo of her, the whitest privileged teenage girl you ever saw, scowling and wearing a black beret and holding a rifle in an aggressive pose in front of the liberation flag of the SLA, and that photo was made into a huge poster that was sold all over the place. She was now calling herself Tania. The group, including Tania, managed to stay hidden for over a year after that. Tania robbed banks and participated in bombing attempts.

I was working at a crisis center in Santa Cruz, California, at the time, and living in one of those large communal households that everyone lived in in those days. Around town we were known as the Broadway house.

Couldn’t find the one with the “weapons,” but this gives you the general idea.

Our large, sometimes rather badly behaved household knew nothing of Stockholm syndrome, but we just loved Patty. We thought she was hilarious. We got the Tania poster and put it up in the living room, and took a photo of all of us wearing berets and black jackets, scowling like Tania, holding in a threatening manner whatever we thought could pass for weapons—a baseball bat, I can’t remember what all else—and posed in front of the flag of Arizona, which has a large, colorful design that could easily pass for some kind of communist flag if you aren’t from Arizona. We wrote a letter to the local paper saying we were the Broadway Liberation Front and claiming responsibility for all kinds of natural disasters, such as a recent earthquake, the winter flood at the old quarry, that kind of thing. The letter said these actions would continue until our demands were met. Our demands were completely indecipherable. We enclosed the photo.

One of our housemates took the letter and destroyed it before we could mail it. She said she didn’t want to be arrested. The wuss. In retrospect, though, it may be a good thing that someone had some sense.

Like most communal households, we had chore charts showing whose turn it was to cook dinner, wash up, clean the bathroom, vacuum, and so on. We added to the chart two new chores, “Sweep out bomb factory” and “Feed Patty.” The idea was that the bomb factory was in the attic, and that was where we were keeping the missing Patty. Or Tania. 

Later, when Patty was caught and she switched back to being an heiress, we lost interest and went on to other ways to entertain ourselves.

But then, the funny part is, 10 or 15 years later, living in San Francisco, I went back to Santa Cruz for an old friend’s wedding. At the reception my friend said to me, “Come on, there’s somebody here who really wants to meet you.” I let myself be dragged over and it turned out to be a little group of young lesbians who were now living in the Broadway house. Our old house.

They said, “Oh, we’ve always wanted to talk to somebody who lived in our house back then! Tell us— We’ve got to know— Was Patty Hearst really hidden in the attic?” Oh! Oh! Is that wonderful? Our childish silliness had morphed into a rumor that lasted for all those years. Bless their hearts.

Of course I said, in an irritated tone of voice, “I can’t tell you that!”  

What else was I going to say?

But my favorite thing about it? The actual funny part of the story? The Broadway house did not have an attic.


2 Responses to Patty Hearst in the Attic

  1. Kerry January 30, 2023 at 1:45 pm #

    Oh Sylvia, I love this SO much. You completely capture that era: the drama, the silliness, the berets. Who didn’t want a beret like Tanya? This is absolutely wonderful.

    • Sylvia Allen January 31, 2023 at 7:29 pm #

      Thank you, Kerry! Yeah, the beret was probably what sold us on Tania to begin with. I’m glad you liked the story.

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